A Cheat Sheet for Knowing WHEN and HOW to think

In thinking about your process for delivering innovative and impactful solutions, there are four commonly used frameworks and approaches for problem solving: Systems Thinking, Design Thinking, Lean, and Agile. Determining which framework to use is dependent on what you’re trying to accomplish. Also, I am framework-agnostic; I believe that each approach serves a specific purpose, many are complimentary, some have overlapping methods and most can be combined.

Each thinking framework provides a problem-solving approach that serves a specific purpose, but can be complimentary to and work well with other approaches.

The big difference lies in understanding the focus and intended outcome for each method. For example, Systems Thinking and Design Thinking are complimentary frameworks, having some overlap in the area of understanding the present state of a system. The primary desired outcome for Design Thinking is to innovate and transform systems by addressing the question “What can be?” Systems thinking seeks to improve your understanding of complex systems by analyzing the broader context (time, space, interconnections) and to identify the solution that offers the highest leverage; it also addresses the question “What has been?”

The important thing is knowing what frameworks are available so that you can determine when and how it may support your work. Here’s a very high-level overview and cheat sheet for knowing when and how to think.

FrameworkDefinitionFocusWhen to Use
Systems ThinkingTo improve understanding of systems by thinking about the wider context of a situation, to uncover patterns and structures, to consider past and current state of systems.Focusing on understanding complex systems and identifying opportunities for solving “root causes” to problems.
  • To understand interconnected, complex problems
  • To address divergent perspectives & stakeholders
  • To avoiding unintended consequences
Design ThinkingTo innovate and transform systems by addressing the question “What can be?” The design thinking process starts with defining the problem to be addressed, understanding the present state and then asking the question “what can be?” The design thinking process has the following stages: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test.Focusing on discovering solutions with customer-centered problem solving.
  • To uncover needs
  • To design solutions
Lean A business methodology used to create more value for customers by using fewer resources and eliminating waste.Focusing on improving the business model by relentlessly eliminating waste and delivering more value
  • To eliminate waste
  • To improve quality
  • To reduce time & costs
  • To preserve value with less work
Agile MethodsAn approach to software development which emphasizes a continual planning, execution and delivery of working software.Focusing on rapidly delivering working software solutions and continuously adapting to changing environments.
  • To deliver working software
  • To continuously adapt and respond to change, feedback and unpredictability
  • Effective collaboration to ensure continuous value throughout the development process
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Video Playlist: Leaders in Systems Thinking

Over a half century old, Systems Thinking is essentially a system for understanding systems. Modern systems thinking evolved from Systems Theory (hard systems). Its genealogy is complex and its origin is often determined by the field of study. Here is a timeline of notable leaders in the discipline of systems thinking …